Hard to believe that it has been 18 years since John Elderfield's masterful Matisse retrospective opened at the Museum of Modern Art. The room that best distinguished that exhibition starkly presented the ground-shifting period of 1913 to 1917, also the subject of the current Matisse meditation at MoMA. At the time, the simple and austere presentation of the period in the artist's development amazed critics and the public alike, a very different curatorial arrangement than the neurotically scientific approach to Matisse in the current show.
Something else is missing, as well: The greatest inclusion in the 1992 show, Matisse's Conversation, held by the Hermitage. Just like Bathers by the River, a truncated commission begun in 1909 and taking many years for the artist to finish, so The Conversation occupied Matisse from 1908 to 1912, and would have been appropriate for the new Matisse survey, which includes a number of other pre-1913 pictures as an illustration of his progress, which was, let's face it, not the linear path of the breeze but the circular buzz saw of a whirlwind.
Aside from the richest and lushest colors in any Matisse, The Conversation has much to recommend it to us humble observers. It is, for starters, the elegant confrontation of a man and a woman, in which Madame Matisse is bedecked in dark finery that would befit Queen Isabella greeting Columbus and, yet, Matisse himself stands grander still. Under his own brush, Matisse is tall, thin (!), regal and commanding, while still wearing the pajamas (which happened to serve double duty in the bedroom and the studio).
The picture has a double center: The lush window view, a Garden of Eden in the rearview mirror, symbolizing the past, fleeting happiness of a contentious couple and the extraordinary patch of blue, heralding the abstracting gestures to come in so many future Matisses, all the way to the cutouts three decades in the future. Yet, The Conversation is also a metaphor of art's progress -- the overdressed, thoughtful, seated woman symbolizing the realist past and the erect yet casual man the brilliant painterly future of fields of color bedecked in perceptual approximations, which Matisse, beginning with The Conversation, made his own.
That legacy endures, indeed flourishes in thousands of studios, from Jonathan Lasker to Elizabeth Peyton. Madame Matisse, the resistant muse, can only, as she does in the exceptional busts of her now on view at MoMA (best viewed in profile), wryly smile.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).